Diving into the Nitty-Gritty of Film Conservation in Kolkata

Picture a climate-controlled film vault in India—and then picture it with its door ajar, at the height of the midday heat, with a man standing right outside the entrance, smoke billowing forth from his cigarette. It wasn’t long ago that Criterion technical director Lee Kline was shown such a scene by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, the founder and director of the Film Heritage Foundation, an organization promoting film-preservation awareness and education in and around India. “You see that?” Kline recalls Dungarpur telling him. “This is why we have the workshop.”

Last month, Kline found himself back in India, for the fourth-annual installment of that very workshop, an intensive week of lectures and tutorials launched by the FHF, in conjunction with the International Federation of Film Archives, to address the region’s lack of a formal film-preservation training program. For this Film Preservation & Restoration Workshop, representatives of film institutions from all over the world converged on Kolkata cultural hub the Rabindranath Tagore Centre in order to teach over fifty participating students—this year’s class, selected from more than 130 applicants, included archivists, film technicians, and scholars from India as well as neighboring countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, and Myanmar—the core practical skills and guiding principles of moving-image conservation. And joining Kline in sharing their expertise were Criterion postproduction supervisor Giles Sherwood and quality-control and image-restoration supervisor Cara Shatzman.

The mission of the Film Heritage Foundation—in which Dungarpur’s wife, Teesha Cherian, is also heavily involved—and its signature educational initiative is undeniably ambitious, and something we’re behind all the way: preserving the rich but often imperiled cinematic heritage of a country that, as the FHF website estimates, “had lost 70 to 80 percent of our films” by the year 1950. To that end, the workshop makes sure that no base is left uncovered. Criterion was tasked with teaching color-correction and digital image restoration workshops, while still other classes, taught by professionals affiliated with such organizations as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the British Film Institute, and L’Immagine Ritrovata, focused on topics like film repair and audio restoration. “Cataloguing was also one of the most important topics—how to get your film and assets into a temperature-controlled vault, or some sort of space where they’re not sitting in 90-degree, 100-percent-humidity heat,” says Kline, who has attended three installments of the workshop. A particularly invaluable opportunity came courtesy of Munich-based film-equipment company ARRI, which arrived with an unwieldy piece of luggage. “They literally brought a scanner from Germany,” says Kline. “The fact that they brought it, and these students were able to literally take film, put it on a scanner, use the software to run it, and see how it all works is way better than any textbook or lecture.”

For his part, Kline contributed to this year’s workshop by telling some stories, while his two colleagues took charge of the more granular classes. In his lecture “Adventures in Restoration,” Kline presented dozens of memorable case studies from Criterion’s last several years of restoration work. He demonstrated why we decided to go back to a nitrate fine-grain held by the Museum of Modern Art, instead of safety copies made years later, when it came time to restore Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, and talked about the unusual process on two John Waters films, Multiple Maniacs—the 16 mm reversal original of which the director had kept in his (occasionally sweltering) attic for decades, and which had splices that cut deep into the top and bottom of the frame—and Female Trouble, much of whose music we wound up replacing with better-sounding recordings originally made by Waters. He also covered the unique problems posed by the film materials for Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker Trilogy (forthcoming from Janus and Criterion), since original lab processing, not to mention storage, is done differently in Iran than in the U.S. Four years ago, at the first workshop in Mumbai, Kline had spoken extensively about our work on Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, the original negatives of which had been damaged in a 1990s film-lab fire, and this year he revisited the subject, showing a clip from Pather Panchali to convey a sense of that particularly painstaking restoration. (Just a few days before the workshop, a Criterion contingent that included Kline was on hand at the Kolkata International Film Festival, where all three Apu Trilogy restorations made their Indian premiere, with many of the stars of the films also in attendance.) Meanwhile, throughout the week, Sherwood and Shatzman gave groups of three to five students a little hands-on experience.

In his primer on the color-correction process, Sherwood laid out the basics of the postproduction software we use to adjust a film’s color balance, often in accordance with instructions from a movie’s director or cinematographer, or with reference to preexisting presentations of the film. Some of the questions Sherwood got from the students—whom the workshop encourages to use such classes to try to “upgrade their skills in their existing work areas,” according to Dungarpur and Cherian—revealed the unique challenges of film-preservation work in India and its surrounding countries. One return attendee from Sri Lanka, who oversees a film archive there, asked if it was possible to improve the image quality on a DVD of a VHS transfer of a film that had otherwise been lost. This scenario put Sherwood, who is accustomed to working with high-resolution scans of film elements, in mind of something he says the workshop’s organizers had emphasized to him ahead of the trip: “Priority number one is preservation, not restoration—we just have to make sure that these films aren’t lost.” Sherwood ultimately told the student that there was still a place for digital color-correction tools under these far-from-ideal circumstances. The VHS transfer “probably has rainbow fringeing in it, no blacks, and poor contrast, so maybe it can look a little better and become watchable,” he says.

Meanwhile—next door, on the other side of a partition in the open-plan space—Shatzman got into the nitty-gritty of digital restoration. Like Sherwood, she also demonstrated some of the methods and software tools we use, though this tutorial focused on cleaning up such potential film issues as jitter, flicker, and dirt. While the students tried their hands at painstaking, no-shortcut restoration work—such as manually fixing film tears, frame by frame—Shatzman fielded some questions that starkly illustrated the hard choices that must be made when only the most limited of resources are available. “The students were asking me about how to preserve certain things, and what they should preserve,” she says. “They asked if they should preserve the scans or the restored film. And I said, ‘Well, you should save both.’ And they said, ‘Well, what if we can’t afford to do that?’ I said if you absolutely cannot save both, save the scans, because that’s the first step of preservation. That’s something we don’t really have to think about here, so that was really eye-opening.”

And it’s not just the students and teachers who have had their eyes opened during the life of the workshop. With four installments in the bank, Dungarpur and Cherian see the event as having had a tangible impact with all sorts of regional institutions. “Governments are sanctioning funds for film preservation, filmmakers and producers have woken up to the fact that they need to take active steps to preserve their films, universities and film schools have shown an interest in including modules on film preservation in their curriculum,” they say. As for the future of the workshop, Dungarpur and Cherian anticipate that next year’s installment will be the last, though that’s certainly not to say the FHF is scaling down: in the meantime, they hope to develop longer-term educational programs, along the lines of a diploma course whose most promising graduates “could then progress to doing an internship at a lab or archive overseas.” In other words, the worthy mission—which we’re proud to have been a very small part of—only continues to gain steam.